Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Fighting for Our Souls and Ideals

Published in abridged form 8/23/02 at
the Duke Chronicle

It is easy to say that America’s current war is for our survival, freedom, or prosperity. But we are actually fighting for our ideals and our future as much as we are for our physical well-being, and so this war is not about bin Laden, or the Taliban,, but about whether the idea that succored them, radical Islamic fundamentalism, will destroy or be destroyed by the ideals of America. As an immigrant, I deeply appreciate the guiding principles of America that are often taken for granted:

1) Live and let live: This underpins our freedom of choice and culture of the individual. While the 1st amendment gets all the glory, one of the most beautiful parts of our constitution is the 10th Amendment, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” As long as you don’t hurt others, you can pretty much do anything you like, and the government won’t get in the way.

2) Empiricism: Americans are not wedded to any one ideology, and are wary of new “isms” but fond of things that work, focusing on goals, not processes. Empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism fuel scientific inquiry (the beginning of any quest for truth, which is what science is about, are the words, “I don’t know). They also enable self-correction of mistakes in the government & society. The constitution’s preamble embodies this spirit: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”, recognizing that America, the land of second chances, is and always will be a work in progress.

3) Exploration: All the mind-bending special effects wizardry of LA does not hold a candle to the accomplishments of NASA, deep-sea divers, particle physicists, biomedical researchers, and their predecessors. This culture of exploration has bestowed a young and resource-endowed nation with unparalleled dynamism, a fascination with the future, an eternal optimistic can-do spirit, and unprecedented physical, social, and informational mobility.

4) Anyone can be an American: The Statue of Liberty proclaims the welcome of foreigners (although that is not always matched in reality). In stark contrast to countries that severely restrict immigration, allowing in foreigners only as menial laborers and indentured servants, and/or have citizenship requirements that one’s ancestor was a citizen in 1910, the US recognizes it is a nation of immigrants and confers opportunities to newcomers and their children—a marvelous engine of self-renewal. I will never forget my Chinese medical school classmate whose parents sold noodles on the streets of Flushing. Fostering immigration has not only immeasurably enriched the cultural vibrancy of America but is a brilliant economic device: the country gets the talents and tax base of numerous adults without having to invest in their childhood. The most handsome dividends of immigration were in World War II, where we welcomed dozens and hundreds of scientists fleeing Nazi death camps who then went on to help us win.

5) The Rule of Law: John Adams wrote, “We are a nation of laws, not of men.” The careful system of checks and balances in the architecture of the Constitution, together with the rights of due process enshrined in the Bill of Rights, has shielded the world’s oldest democracy from the temptations of tyranny, moderated the passions of mobs, and protected our freedoms and the innocent. The mostly transparent nature of government and society is maintained by a vigorous judiciary and a free press, the organs of society that cast the light of day on government agencies and guard against abuse. The Freedom of Information Act reinforces the “public’s right to know.”

6) Opportunity for All: In principle, everyone has access to health, education, capital, and methods of self-improvement, and the goal is equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness. Our system is intended to discriminate among persons based on their character and deeds, not on features of identity they were born with, principles of nondiscrimination codified in the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and restated in the Civil Rights Act. These protections allow each citizen to dream the American Dream, the continual betterment of the material well-being of the individual and the country, a dream that has successfully nourished entrepreneurship and progress.

7) Separation of Church and State: The 1st amendment leads off, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This sentence has protected religion from politics and government from fundamentalism; both are vital to our society, for faith stems from divine revelation and should not be polluted by mundane concerns while a democracy requires the ability to dissent and to say “I don’t know”, which a theocracy is incompatible with, witness the Taliban. Separation of institutions also underlies the separation of powers of and apolitical military that are key features of our government.

These principles have helped this country become great. To be sure, they have their drawbacks (gridlock, bureaucracy, materialism), and the US has too often been hypocritical (the three-fifths compromise, lack of women’s suffrage, slavery, wiping out the native Americans, various skullduggeries), but within our system is the capacity for growth, to recognize our faults and change, to form a more perfect union.

We can no longer hold the illusion, nourished by 2 great oceans and 2 friendly neighbors, that the US is apart from the world. Our foreign policy must be informed by an appreciation of what we are to articulate and pursue cogent goals to spread freedom and uphold justice. This is what we defend: faith that people can rule themselves through reasoned argument, a belief without a home for the 2 millennia prior to the US. The radical Islamic funda-mentalists claim divine authority and ultimate truth, rejecting inquiry, seeking to impose their world-view on the rest of the world through violence; church and state are one, and due process and freedom are irrelevant. Aside from their religious twist and willingness to commit suicide to kill others, their creed resembles Nazism and communism. It is as much our duty as our right to discredit and destroy the idea of radical Islamic fundamentalism as much as one man. And in so doing, we must not trample on our superior ideals in order to save them.


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